Flunking French

Flunking French

The government’s billion-dollar bilingualism program is not entirely a failure. More civil servants than ever can now order a meal in a French restaurant

Ian Urquhart May 31 1976
Flunking French

Flunking French

The government’s billion-dollar bilingualism program is not entirely a failure. More civil servants than ever can now order a meal in a French restaurant

Ian Urquhart May 31 1976

Flunking French

The government’s billion-dollar bilingualism program is not entirely a failure. More civil servants than ever can now order a meal in a French restaurant

Ian Urquhart

The scene is an office in Ottawa. A junior bureaucrat—a graduate of the government’s language school, which allegedly teaches French to civil servants at an average cost of $9,150 each—answers the telephone. The voice at the other end is speaking French. The bureaucrat answers, “Un instant, s’il vous plait”—virtually the only French he has retained from the language school—and puts the caller on hold. Then he waits 30 seconds, studies his nails, clears his throat and, disguising his voice, returns to the telephone line on hold: “Yes, can I help you?” He has learned that it is a rare francophone who will persist in speaking French in the face of such intransigence.

It is a true story and one of many circulating Ottawa in these days of retrenchment and reaction when even the concept of bilingualism is under attack. The government’s bilingualism program is coming apart at the seams, a victim of bureaucratic resistance and public apathy, even antipathy. It was conceived in the hopeful 1960s, the era of the Just Society, when people believed all our problems could be solved with a little more time and money. Now, a decade and more than a billion dollars later (no one has calculated the exact figure), 58,000 civil servants have been sent on language courses (the figure includes some double-counting of bureaucrats who took more than one course), and people are beginning to concede that it simply isn’t working.

Although usually identified with Pierre Trudeau, the program actually dates back to Lester Pearson. Faced with an increasingly restless Quebec, Pearson set up the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism in July, 1963. It was to become the source of most of the subsequent bilingualism policies, beginning, in April 1966, with Pearson’s landmark statement to the House of Commons: “All citizens,” he said, “should have a fair and equal opportunity to participate in the national administration and to identify themselves with and feel at home in their own national capital.” He set forth two primary goals: first, that the general public should be able to deal with the federal government, whether buying stamps or filling out income tax forms, in French or English; and, second, that civil servants should be able to communicate inside the government in either language. His target for achieving the two goals was “a reasonable period of years.”

Considerable progress has been made toward the first goal in the past 10 years, but the second goal—the use of both French and English inside the civil service—seems as remote as ever. Despite a proportional increase in the number of francophones in the civil service (see chart), English is still overwhelmingly the working language of government. Says official languages commissioner Keith Spicer, a longtime advocate of bilingualism: “We’ve been telling the Quebeckers all sorts of fairy tales for 10 years to the effect that Ottawa can be their home, their national capital, Canada is their country, and so on. But when they have come to this massively English civil service, they have found that they have been scattered throughout this civil service and that there was no way that they could use French practically.”

To English-speaking Canadians, this may not seem a very great problem, but to a French-speaking Quebecker the overwhelming Englishness of the civil service poses an almost impenetrable barrier. Despite the common assumption outside Quebec that all francophones speak English as well as their mother tongue, only one third of them do. The remaining two

thirds, mostly in Quebec, are virtually excluded from the federal civil service. Trudeau himself was keenly aware of the problem before he became Prime Minister. “It seems quite evident to me,” he wrote in Federalism And The French Canadians, “that the English-speaking majority has behaved, historically, as though French Canadians were merely one of the country’s ethnic minorities with a few special privileges. The most striking example of this attitude occurs in the federal civil service, where English is, to all intents and purposes, the only working language.” In the end Trudeau concluded that this state of affairs, if permitted to continue, would lead inevitably to separatism.

Pearson’s 1966 policy statement on bilingualism was meant to head off separatism and keep the country united, and at the outset the country, flush with Centennial fever, gave the program general, even enthusiastic, support. Trudeau made bilingualism a major plank in the Liberal Party platform in the 1968 election, and the results speak for themselves. But the concept of bilingualism was sold to the public on the basis of Pearson’s first goal: that francophones be able to use their language in communicating with the federal government. Little mention was made of the second one: that French was to be a language of work inside the civil service. The much ballyhooed Official Languages Act, introduced by the Trudeau government in 1969 and supported by all but 17 MPS (all Tories, with John Diefenbaker, of course, in the lead), makes no direct reference to language of work.

The second goal had not been forgotten, so much as put off. After the 1972 election, the government introduced a resolution in the House of Commons aimed at giving parliamentary backing to the use of French not only as a language of service to

French-speaking Canadians but also as a working language in the civil service. It was sold as a reaffirmation of the Official Languages Act and, indeed, many Ottawa journalists viewed it as a political ploy, with little or no actual substance, designed to split the Tories (which it did: 16 Tory MPS, again led by Diefenbaker, voted against it). But in fact the resolution reached beyond the Official Languages Act to guarantee that civil servants could work “in the official language of their choice.” A target date of December 31, 1978, was set for fulfilling this goal. By then, most bosses and intermediaries inside the civil service, as well as a smaller number of people dealing with the public, would have to speak French. The government estimated the total would be about 25,000.

Even for an estimate it was embarrassingly far off the mark. By the end of last year, the number of jobs designated “bilingual” (that is, jobs whose occupants must be able to speak both French and English) had climbed to 62,961. The government language school was swamped. It started out in 1964 with five teachers and 42 students. It now has more than 2,000 teachers in 14 schools across the country, 420 classrooms in all accommodating up to 10 civil servants per class. The schools serve not only civil servants holding bilingually designated jobs at the time of the languages resolution but also new civil servants who have been accepted in bilingual posts although they speak only one language. The latter are accommodated under a section of the resolution aimed at protecting the rights of unilingual anglophones by allowing them to compete for bilingual jobs on the condition that, if accepted, they agree to learn French. (They may spend up to a year at the government language school drawing government pay cheques before they put in a day’s work at their new jobs.) The cost is enormous: $ 136 million in the current fiscal year, not including $39 million for the military which has its own bilingualism program. But as Treasury Board President Jean Chrétien, who doubles as the government’s language czar, points out, it is only about half of what the government plans to spend in dairy subsidies this year ($266 million) and less than one third of 1% of the total budget. “Put in perspective,” says Chrétien, “I don’t think any reasonable person can say that we are spending too much to keep the country united.”

But what are we getting for our money? The fact is that graduates of the French school can’t really speak French. Oh, they can order a meal in French, or converse about the weather. A lucky few, with a facility for languages, progress beyond that stage. But the experience of most is summed up by a graduate who says: “When I switch to French, I automatically drop to the intellectual level of a 12-yearold. 1 just can’t discuss complex subjects in the language.” Francophones, for their part, grow impatient with anglophones struggling to speak “federal French” and, after a token exchange in “the other official language,” switch back to English. Everybody then sighs in relief and carries on working in the language that was used in the federal civil service 10, 20 or 100 years ago: English.


The government is now less than three years from its self-imposed deadline for a civil service in which people can work in the language of their choice, and a sense of panic is starting to set in. What if all the French-speaking civil servants suddenly refused to speak English? The whole civil service could grind to a halt. Indeed, everybody did insist on speaking French for a few weeks last year in the offices of the Unemployment Insurance Commission in Montreal. Periodically there are threats that it will happen again on a more widespread basis. Faced with such problems, the government has begun, ever so subtly, to redefine its goal. Says Chrétien: “Some will argue that the fluency of the [anglophone] bureaucrats [in French] is not adequate. With this, I cannot quarrel. But what is the most important thing is to create the proper mentality, even if the system is not perfect, and 1 think that we are achieving that. Of course, you can go into a department and say [to someone] ‘You’re supposed to be bilingual,’ and you talk with him and he has to struggle. This is one of the problems. But this is secondary. What is important is to make the French language a language with a presence within the public service in Ottawa, and I think we have achieved that.”

Certainly, the atmosphere has changed.

French is much more accepted in Ottawa now than it was before. (In 1936 Conservative leader R. B. Bennett opposed a government bill to make the currency bilingual on the grounds that it would militate against “harmony between races.”) But it is doubtful whether a change in atmosphere will satisfy the francophones who must work in English. And it is questionable whether to accomplish such a change the government had to send so many civil servants to school. If it weren’t so expensive, the language-school boondoggle would be funny, although it’s no joke for middle-level civil servants whose careers are on the line and find it difficult, if not impossible to learn a second language. For younger civil servants, a stint at the language school, with six hours of classes a day, can be tantamount to paid holidays (“sabbaticals in lush Second-Language Land,” Spicer calls them). But older civil servants often resent being trundled off to school again and are embarrassed by their lack of facility in a second language compared to their younger counterparts, most of whom are their juniors. Says one 29year-old student at the language school: “You see secretaries performing better than their bosses. Personally, I love it. But I can feel the tension.” There was a 58-yearold man in her class who grew so tense he began to affect the other students and had to be moved. Even among the younger, more motivated students, there are problems. “You start off pretty idealistic,” says one. “But, because it’s like going to school again, you become childlike. At first, everybody spoke French religiously during the breaks. Now, it’s really a chore. There’s a lot of giggling in the classes, too. 1 hadn’t giggled in years. I guess it’s related to tension. But anyway, you feel sort of stupid.”

The cabinet realized last summer that the program was not working. In a confidential Treasury Board report it was told that graduates of the language school were not really bilingual and were not using their French. “Phase Two” of the program, which emphasizes Units Working in French (UWFS, in bureaucratese), was launched in response. About 8,000 civil servants would be put in UWFS, in which French would be the exclusive language of work, with a set percentage of senior officials from each department to be included. It sounded like a workable program, but the civil service fought back. First, the secret background documents behind the cabinet decision were leaked, causing the government considerable embarrassment. Then, public service unions kicked up a storm. Finally, individual departments fought back, choosing out-of-the-way sections of the bureaucracy to fulfill their UWF quotas, thereby defeating the purpose of the plan. As a result, the government is now reexamining the concept.

But it will take more than a little tinkering with the UWFS to rescue the bilingualism program from the torrent of criticism to which it has recently been subjected. It used to be relatively immune to attack, because critics ran the risk of being labeled bigots. All that changed with the publication in March of a highly critical report on the program by official languages commissioner Spicer. Like the little boy who saw the emperor had no clothes, Spicer stripped the facade from the program and laid bare all its faults. He reported that language training for civil servants—or, as he described it, “teaching old dogs the new trick of obfuscation in two languages”—is not paying off. He did a survey of language-school graduates and found that 83% of the anglophones use their new French less than 20% of the time (at work), and 13% do not use it at all (see chart). The government is now bracing for a second report on language training, this one by University of Montreal professor Gilles

Bibeau, which is expected to be released in July and which is said to come to conclusions quite similar to Spicer’s.

Where should the government turn? Spicer’s solution is simple: phase out the teaching of basic French (and English) to civil servants by 1986 and put the money saved into the elementary and high schools, where French would be made a compulsory subject. As an added incentive, Spicer would make French a prerequisite for entry to university. He realizes he is bucking the trend toward liberalization of school curricula. “I’m quite prepared to be called an academic fascist.” Moreover, he would put another

condition on the phasing out of civil servants language training: he would make a grounding in French mandatory for all new candidates for government jobs at the university graduate level after 1986. (In his report he referred to this only as a “desirable goal,” although after discussions with public service unions it is his private belief that such a requirement should be mandatory.) To anglophones who might accept the phasing out of government language training but balk at making a basic knowledge of French a prerequisite to entry into the civil service Spicer says, you have to take the “whole package.” Otherwise, the clock would be turned back to 1966.

Spicer’s proposal to give language training back to the schools is not new. It has been advocated in the past by such allegedly anti-French bigots as Len Jones, the Moncton MP whom Robert Stanfield would not have in his party because of his stand on bilingualism. (Spicer bridles at the comparison to Jones, saying it’s like comparing Joan of Arc to Elmer Gantry, and pointing out that he has supported bilingualism while Jones fought thes Official Languages Act right up to the Supreme Court.) But whereas the government can discount Jones, it has to listen to Spicer. Its initial reaction, perhaps understandably, was defensive. Secretary of State Hugh Faulkner noted the government already plans to give $134 million to the provinces this year for second-language education in the schools and has made heavy contributions in the past. Said Faulkner: “It really isn’t a problem of under-funding. It’s a problem of attitude. It’s a problem of finding enough adequate teachers. It’s a problem of political will at the provincial level and at the level of the school boards. It’s a problem of the interest of the kids and their parents. Only marginally is it a problem of resources.” There was also concern about Spicer’s suggestion that a basic knowledge of French and English should be mandatory for prospective civil servants in the future. There is a fear that such a policy could lead to a civil service dominated by francophones, because bilingual people are, by and large, francophones (in the 1971 census, 1,971,230 of the 2,900,150 people reporting to be bilingual were francophones).

In fact, there are signs it is happening already. Statistics published last month by the Public Service Commission show that of the 23,074 people appointed to bilingual positions in the civil service in 1975 more than half, 12,078, were francophones. The reason is quite simple: the people doing the hiring do not want to lose the person being hired for a year while he takes language training. Says one senior civil servant: “When I’m hiring, I’m very conscious of whether or not a person is bilingual. If he’s not, he better be 20% better than his competition, because I’m assessed on the output of my whole group, and if I hire a unilingual person I’m going to have to kiss him good-bye for a year while he goes to language school.” Treasury Board President Chrétien laughs off the suggestion that the old problem of too few francophones in the civil service could be replaced by one of too few anglophones. “It will never happen,” he says. “The adaptability of the anglophones is fantastic.”

But Chrétien takes the Spicer plan serii ously. He says he agrees in general with the proposal to phase out government lan| guage-training programs and to make the 1 knowledge of both languages a prerequisite to a civil service job. The problem, he says, is timing and the provincial education departments. “At the provincial level, there is a consensus that something should be done, but there’s not the will to do it. And we cannot step in and do it for them. In my own province now. some people are arguing that the francophones should not learn English. I’m embarrassed. It’s difficult coming from Quebec telling others what to do. But I think that, in all the provinces, for someone who goes to university, a prerequisite should be that he has an adequate knowledge of the other language.” A task force under Chrétien will study both the Spicer and Bibeau reports before he reports to cabinet on the issue. That could take up to a year. Some of the policies likely to be considered are the carrot (offering to split the costs of new language-training expenses with the provinces) and the stick (withholding federal grants to universities that do not make the knowledge of both languages a prerequisite to entrance).


However, any effort to build a national commitment for teaching Canadian children both French and English could founder on the rocks of the bilingualism backlash that has been building for a dec-

ade and now threatens to split the country. The signs are everywhere. Spicer says even his own mother turns cans around on supermarket shelves so the French side of the label is not facing outward. In Vancouver, efforts to establish a French-language television station have met with incredible resistance. Said one anglophone in a letter to the Canadian Radio-Television Commission: “I’m sick to death of all this special consideration for the French. We don't need any part of them out here.” Said another: “The French television station is more highly symbolic of the ram-it-downyour-throat policy than any other official gesture. It could lead to bloodshed.” In Ontario’s Niagara region, citizens have reacted to a proposal to create a “bilingual district” to ensure that the francophones there (they make up roughly 17% of the population of Welland, for example) have access to federal services in French as if someone had proposed making the region a site for a nuclear bomb test. A committee, frankly named Bilingual Backlash, has been formed to fight the proposal. The government, taken aback by the criticism, has put off implementing the plan.

The Conservatives, who advocate a policy on bilingualism akin to “benign neglect,” blame the Fiberais and particularly Trudeau for causing this backlash by pushing the program too hard and too fast. The Fiberals tend to blame the reaction on a breakdown in communications and on

outright bigotry. Whatever the cause, according to Fiberal MP Pierre De Bane, a strong supporter of bilingualism, the divisive forces are gaining. “It’s really distressing,” he says. “I just don’t think people in this country are mature enough to pay the price to keep Canada united.”

Spicer, always the optimist, takes a more positive view: “Poking through the chicken entrails, one strains somewhat harder today than a year ago to spot omens of a more serene Canadian climate on language. On the surface, linguistic antagonisms abound, as does anguish real or bogus at the horrors awaiting a country trying to come to terms with its diverse reality. To hear some worthy people, bilingualism’s to blame for all Canada’s problems— from unemployment to unwed mothers, from hiccups to hurricanes. But behind this counterpoint of stridency, one hears in both linguistic communities a plainsong of opinion that wants our country’s languages used, not abused. Most Canadians wish and intend to stay open-minded. More and more, though often dismayed by perceived waste or nonsense in its application, they accept the principle of linguistic equality as part of a sensible Canada. To say that Canadians are getting more realistic about their language heritage may not sound messianic enough to please some political poets. But realism is not a bad basis for any relationship, including even one between groups.” Ç-